1. Governance
September 10, 2015

Privately owned public space isn’t all bad – and 6 other lessons from planning research

By Michael Harris

Academic researchers sometimes have a reputation for abstract thinking, obtuse conclusions and raising more questions than answers. This wasn’t the case with the projects that won the Royal Town Planning Institute research awards this week, however.

The awards recognise planning research, which has practical findings to improve our towns, cities and rural areas. Here are seven lessons about cities that the winning projects highlight.

1. The sceptics are wrong – privately-owned public space can work.

From an investigation of public spaces in London, University College London found that it isn’t all doom and gloom when it comes to so-called “privately owned public spaces” (that is, areas like Canary Wharf that appear to be public, but aren’t).  

Far from causing the destruction of public spaces, private ownership can often be positive, promoting renewal in many parts of the capital. The study found that there was a great diversity across the public spaces in London which cater to the needs of the public in many different ways.

2. Click and collect hasn’t killed the high street – yet.

Another piece of UCL research looked at high streets, from Peckham and Ealing to Oxford Street and Marylebone. It shows that they are still vital to London’s economy – but urgent work is needed to halt their decline.

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Most importantly, they need to be managed by a single body that brings together multiple agencies. The research sets out 10 steps to reviving London’s high streets which could be adopted by town and cities across the country.

3. Threats rather than benefits are stronger triggers for environmental protection.

Despite increasing public concern for the environment, it still isn’t being taken seriously enough by decision makers. The long advocated “ecosystem services” approach puts a price on the “services” provided by the environment – think bees pollinating crops, wetlands filtering water or plants converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. This approach is based on the theory that socio-economic benefits will help the environment to properly valued and incorporated into traditional economic assessments of the costs and benefits of decisions.

But it does not always convince enough to trigger action, according to research by University College Dublin and Cardiff University. Case studies suggest that the environment is only taken seriously where there is an existing desire to do so, like a perceived threat to the countryside.

4. Informal influence on decision makers can be as important as the formal planning system.

According to more University College Dublin research there’s a “shadow planning system” dominated big developers and others with money. These “powerful actors” use this shadow system to circumvent the planning systems’ formal structures and procedures to get more favourable results.

The 20 urban planners interviewed for the research commented on the “undue influence” these groups can have and the subtle pressures they can exert on decision making.

5. Sometimes “flexible planning” can be a bit too flexible.

It is generally acknowledged that a liberal, flexible planning system is beneficial to a city’s development, enabling its economic transformation by allowing swift change in land use.

But laissez faire policies such as those adopted in Hong Kong can have unforeseen consequences, as a study by the University of Hong Kong have found. It found that relaxed permitted land-use rights have shifted the burden and costs of gaining land-use change to the end user or owners of the property.

Hong Kong’s rise as an international financial centre has been mirrored by a flexible planning system that has allowed for swift change in land use, but has given rise to unforeseen problems. Image: ExploringLife/Wikimedia Commons.

6.Planners can learn from playwrights.

In the North East of England, a play centred around a fictional town in crisis as it deals with a major planning application has been used to engage communities in planning – so successfully that some audience members having to be reminded that the story is merely fictional.

The Town Meeting is an example of so called “performance ethnography”, an unusual way to conduct research on spatial planning.  Developed by Newcastle University and an innovative theatre company, audience reactions show that older people tend to be more cynical about the planning process, while people under 30 feel much more positive about the process.

The project demonstrates that theatre is a unique and powerful way to tap into and communicate the human responses and passions embedded within the planning process. It highlights the need for planners to be more than technical experts as they increasingly take on the role of facilitator/mediator in the planning process.

7. Cities need research.

Researchers are often criticised for producing abstract work without practical outcomes or solutions to the problems our towns, cities and countryside are facing. The research projects recognised by the RTPI’s awards show that there is plenty of research out there that policy- and decision-makers need to know about.

We need research so that we can make decisions using the best available evidence to deal with the major issues facing our towns and cities, such as demographic and climate change, a changing economy, and increasing urbanisation. If we want to improve people’s living standards and live more sustainably, then not only is planning more important than ever – so is the research that can tell us how to plan better.

Dr Michael Harris is deputy head of policy and research at the Royal Town Planning Institute.

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